Top 5 Errors in Crisis Communications Response

By Tracy Carlson, APR, Media Relations Director, Padilla Speer Beardsley

Just ask the organizers of the Boston Marathon or the mayor of Moore, Okla. No organization is immune to a crisis, whether it takes the form of a terrorist bomb or a two-mile-wide tornado. Other crisis fears topping the list for communicators: workplace violence, mistakes (or stupid acts) by executives and employees, and stakeholder complaints that go viral.

Anyone who helps manage an organization’s reputation knows that eventually, some type of crisis will occur that could negatively alter public perception. It’s a matter of when, not if.

However, no matter the nature of the crisis, preparation is key to successfully navigating one. That best practice and more can help you avoid these top five crisis response errors:

Common Error #1

Make it up as you go along.

Best Practice

Emotions run high and nerves are shot. To help stay on point and in command, you need a crisis communications response plan in place, including protocols for operational continuity. And make sure you can access it no matter where you are when the emergency call comes in.

Common Error #2

Only communicate during a crisis.

Best Practice

Building up a bank of goodwill within your community is essential. Often, the first thing a reporter will do after getting a “company-in-crisis” assignment is search online for background about the organization.  You want them to find a positive view of the good work your organization has done within the community. Also, develop relationships now with important stakeholders – including  government leaders, fire and police officials, local media, and the Red Cross or other emergency support groups – so they’re familiar with your organization when/if a crisis hits. Local leaders can be important ambassadors during difficult times.

Common Error #3

Wait to see if anyone notices.

Best Practice

The Rutgers basketball coach scandal this Spring demonstrated the dangers of simply sitting on a potential crisis. The university’s athletic department learned about the harassment videos and hoped they’d never become public. They did, months later. Suddenly, the school’s gleaming reputation was tarnished. Leaders who quickly assess a situation and respond appropriately will better serve an organization’s reputation.

Common Error #4

Issue a news release and consider it done.

Best Practice

In today’s lightning-fast communications environment, it’s critical to use multiple communications channels that reach your audiences – and allow them to respond to you. Approaches can range from personal letters and phone calls, to social media and media statements/news releases. All communications need to leverage consistent messages. You also need to underscore and illustrate any actions under way to address the crisis.  Saying you’re sorry isn’t enough – you need to show action.

Common Error #5

Senior leadership manages the crisis.

Best Practice

You need a team-based approach to best respond during a crisis. Creating a crisis communications plan forces you to identify your crisis management experts. Senior leadership definitely should direct and approve the response. But more expertise will be necessary to lead and execute a detailed crisis response.  

Having the right crisis plan and response team in place will help protect an organization’s reputation whenever the unexpected occurs. Having a communications expert as part of that team also is vital. Padilla’s crisis experts are available 24 hours a day through our crisis line, 1-877-PR ER 911.


About the Author: Tracy is a media relations Director at Padilla Speer Beardsley. Her successful media relations efforts have contributed to several campaign awards, including a National PRSA Silver Anvil, a National PRWeek Award, Minnesota PRSA Classics Best of Shows and several Minnesota PRSA Classics. 


1 Comment

  1. Peter Thiele on July 10, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    During my 26+ years as a media member, I remember getting hung up on by a head of a Non Profit that did something terrible.

    Getting the Old, “Go To Hell!” is not the way to handle a crisis! LOL